Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Eamonn McCann: Water charges will increase poverty

Is Minister David Cairns having a laugh when he says that the NIO won that court case in which the judge ruled that the NIO was wrong to pretend that it had consulted properly on its plans to enforce water charges?

Responding to the court's decision to uphold a Consumer Council challenge, Cairns said: "I am very pleased that this challenge has been rejected."



Pressed on Radio Ulster, Cairns explained that the Consumer Council had offered 16 reasons to find the consultation flawed, but the court had made its decision on the basis of only one.



The former priest has missed his vocation. He should have been a football manager, so he could explain to John Motson that a one-nil scoreline against his side should not be construed as a defeat. "The other lot had 16 shots at goal but only bulged the onion bag once. So we won."



Jose Mourinho, eat your heart out.



New Labour ministers' casual approach has been much in evidence in the water charges scam. And it's catching.



In October last year, Water Service chief executive Katherine Bryan told the magazine Business Eye that: "Northern Ireland is one of the few areas which doesn't pay for its water service." This was untrue. We have been paying for our water service all along, through the rates. Maybe not as much or by the method Ms Bryan would prefer. But we've been paying.



Ms Bryan was back in the fray on Monday denying the BBC story that debt collectors chasing up water charges would put the boot in on "rock bottom" people, while adopting an altogether softer approach to "affluent achievers".



These were standard-issue phrases used in the debt-collecting business, it was later explained. They'd been quoted for reference purposes only. What hasn't been denied - because it cannot be - is that the strategy encapsulated in the phrases has been adopted and, unless water charges are defeated, will be implemented.



After all, that's standard-issue practice in the debt-collecting business, too.



The people who'll be hit hardest by water charges, if we allow their imposition, are those on the edge of poverty. That's the reason for the extra-tough approach to the poor. When people have the money but are simply holding back, gentle coaxing may be sufficiently persuasive. It's when a family is finding it a real hassle to get the money together that you have to put their backs against the wall.



The result will be to make poverty worse. It's one of the statistical curiosities of Northern Ireland that, although we come out worse than any region across the water in terms of low pay, the numbers without paid work or receiving out-of-work or disability benefits, actual poverty levels are officially in line with the UK average.



The explanation of this apparent paradox is found in a report on Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland published this month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The main factor is that "the level of housing costs ... are, at present, much lower than in any Great Britain region." The measure of housing costs crucially includes council tax/water charges.



New Labour ministers have cited the relatively low housing costs here as justification for increasing rates and imposing water charges - the effect of which will be to plummet Northern Ireland down the poverty league.



It is a statistical, common-sense, clearly-observable fact that water charges will significantly increase poverty. If we allow charges to happen, that is. Which we don't have to.



Mark Durkan made a stir on Tuesday when he revealed during a parliamentary committee debate that the Government may move towards full-blown privatisation in just over a year - without even the sort of pretence of public consultation for which the courts lambasted the NIO last week.



"Do honourable friends really think it is sound that you provide for a GoCo - a publicly owned company - and you legislate so that that can actually take on private sector ownership without any public consultation in the future?" he asked.



But should he have been so outraged? It has been pointed out here that the GoCo, scheduled to be set up on April 1 next, will be a private company. It will be incorporated under company law and will operate in the market-place like any other private operation.



Katherine Bryan spelt it out in the Business Eye interview that management had already psyched itself into a private-sector mind-set: "We have to be lean and mean. We're going to be a company like any other, so business disciplines apply."



The magazine continued: "She's also keen that the new company, and its management team, are seen as part of the wider business community - rather than part of Northern Ireland's supersize public sector."



The Programme for Government Committee at Stormont complained on Monday that Peter Hain hadn't responded to its plea for postponement of the legislation put before parliament the following day. "The failure to reply was considered as not only a lack of common courtesy but also disrespect for the Committee," the MLAs added.



Did it occur to them that the reason Hain reckons he can treat them with disdain is that they have apparently set their faces against the only strategy which frightens him and which alone holds out hope of scuppering his scam - a mass refusal to pay.



It can be done. If even one mainstream party would throw its weight behind the non-payment campaign it would be unstoppable.



The die has been cast. What are they waiting for?



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